Written by Max Fisher
A debate has long raged at universities and think tanks, through public diplomacy and state media outlets: Does democracy or an authoritarian system perform better in times of crisis?
There is no doubt as to democracy’s advantage on matters like individual rights or rule of law. Still, discussions about which system is more effective in addressing major national challenges draw heavy attention, especially given China’s world-shaking rise and deepening frustration in the West over political infighting.
Now two simultaneous crises — climate change and the pandemic — are putting governments to the test. Their performances are being scrutinized in a number of studies, with this result: While democracies do perform slightly better on average in dealing with these problems, neither democracy nor an authoritarian system has shown a clear and consistent edge.
Sweeping theories for the supposed advantages of one system or the other have been of little help in predicting how these crises would play out.
It was once widely held, for instance, that authoritarian nations like China would, because of their centralized authority and generational timelines for plans, be uniquely equipped to tackle challenges like climate change.
But Beijing’s pledges for reducing greenhouse gasses have been thwarted by political infighting and short-term imperatives of just the sort that China’s propagandists say are characteristic of democracies.
At the same time, while some democracies have excelled in dealing with climate-related matters, others have struggled, particularly the United States, which this month saw yet another climate plan collapse amid congressional gridlock.
And then there is the pandemic.
Predictions that democracies’ transparency and sensitivity to public opinion would make them better equipped to handle the virus have fared poorly. So have declarations that authoritarian systems would excel because of their ability to move decisively and proactively; many did not.
Multiple studies have found that both systems have, on average, performed roughly the same in managing the pandemic, going by metrics like excess deaths.
Democracies have done slightly better. But experts stress that this small gap may not reflect that democracies are better equipped, but rather that countries with, for example, stronger health systems may be likelier to be democratic.
Either system can function effectively, as the pandemic has shown, with individual democracies and authoritarian governments alike among the world’s best performers on slowing the virus’s spread.
And either system can falter, as with China’s pushing pandemic restrictions to the point of cratering its own economy, or the U.S.’ climate plans collapsing under the opposition of a senator who represents one-half of 1% of the population.
This undermines theories that either system wields an innate advantage in certain crises, but it hints at another lesson: The prevailing threats to democracy and authoritarianism alike might not come from each other, but from weaknesses within.
Assessing the Systems
“This is an incredibly complicated question, in part because there are so many different ways to assess performance,” Justin Esarey, a Wake Forest University political scientist, said of the “vast” number of studies into which political system governs better.
That question gained prominence in the 1990s as several authoritarian countries in Asia, their economies booming, presented what was taken as a new rival to the democratic model. Ever since, economic performance has been seen as the bench mark for which system runs better.
Two schools of thought emerged. One said that authoritarian governments like China, freed of the short-term thinking imposed by elections or the petty inefficiencies of the democratic process, could force through better policy.
The other said democracies’ transparency and accountability produce better-run and more responsive governance. Proponents pointed to South Korea’s economy booming under democracy just as North Korea’s collapsed.
Both theories have circulated ever since. But neither consistently holds up to scrutiny.
One study of authoritarian economies worldwide, for instance, found that they, on average, neither exceeded nor lagged behind democracies. Those that grew did so for the same reason that some democracies did: smart choices by leaders, better-run institutions and other factors.
The two systems operate differently, but the differences often cancel each other out.
Another study found democracies somewhat better at curbing recessions and party-based authoritarian systems a bit better at increasing growth, but ultimately, the systems’ economic performance proved comparable.
This is hardly true of every bench mark. Citizens’ happiness, health measures like infant mortality, and the quality of public services are all better under democracy — not to mention the liberties whose protection is, after all, part of the point of democracy.
And questions of sheer performance have remained relevant as global crises like climate and the pandemic have taken on growing importance.
Tested by Crisis
The pandemic would seem to provide the perfect opportunity to test which system can govern more effectively because it has affected every country on earth and its toll is quantifiable.
But research by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reached much the same conclusion as those economic studies. Democracies and authoritarian systems are roughly as likely to do well or poorly, with neither consistently outperforming the other.
While some commentators pointed to, say, Iran’s early failures as proof that authoritarian governments’ secrecy and corruption would doom them, others pointed to how many other such governments, like Vietnam, excelled.
And for every democracy that struggled, like the United States, another, like New Zealand or Taiwan, performed well, undercutting theories that democracy, taken broadly, was too messy or slow to respond.
What mattered, Kleinfeld found, were factors like social trust or institutional competency. And neither system is necessarily and consistently better at cultivating those.
Another study, acknowledging that authoritarian rulers might be more likely to lie about the pandemic’s toll, examined a hard-to-falsify metric called excess mortality. They found that on average, democracies fared better at curbing pandemic deaths than did authoritarian governments — but, again, the gap was slight and possibly explained by factors other than political system.
Esarey, the political scientist, also found a slight advantage for democracies when it came to vaccination rates, but given that, many democracies underperformed authoritarian governments and vice versa.
The Climate Challenge
Could climate, a longer-term and arguably larger crisis, shed a different light?
To many in the United States, authoritarianism might seem to hold the advantage as Beijing’s leaders have announced one dramatic climate policy after another.
But some democracies have proved similarly aggressive on climate, suggesting that the U.S.’ struggles are less because of democracy itself than to quirks specific to the U.S. system.
And authoritarian governments can be just as messy as any democracy. Take China’s much-touted five-year-plans, which claim to set long-term policy without the fuss of legislative horse-trading or infighting.
In reality, the documents can read less like legislation than a wish list, and sometimes a vague one, sent from central planners to provincial and agency leaders who decide on their own how to pursue those decrees, if they do so at all.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, can announce greenhouse gas reductions until he is blue in the face, but he might not be able to count on his own government’s complying — which it seemingly has not. China’s provincial leaders and its state-run enterprises built more new coal plants than have the rest of the countries of the world combined.
Some of this may be policy confusion. Beijing has demanded economic growth as well as carbon reductions, leaving local officials to figure out which to emphasize. But some may also be defiance.
Beijing has long struggled to compel local officials to serve the national good. For many years, Xi announced China’s intention to reduce its steel production, only for output to rise the next year as individual provinces increased production, glutting the market and hurting the industry nationally.
In one infamous example, Beijing ordered provincial leaders to curb the water pollution that was then imperiling the nation’s health. Rather than cutting down on polluting factories, officials instead moved them to their borders so that pollution, which increased nationwide, flowed into the next province.
Early in the pandemic, local leaders withheld information about the outbreak from central planners. And now that officials face pressure to keep infection numbers near zero, they are suppressing local economies to devastating nationwide effect.
These ups and downs are certainly linked to China’s authoritarian model. But countries with similar systems have often struggled where China succeeded or succeeded where it struggled.
Likewise, the U.S.’ successes and setbacks have hardly paralleled the performance of other democracies, for better or worse.
“It’s natural for the people living under one system to envy the advantages of the other,” Esarey said, particularly when both democracies and authoritarian systems face growing internal challenges worldwide.
The data, he added, instead supports a conclusion sometimes attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Winston Churchill, the former British leader: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”